Survey of Childcare/parenting in the Bible

As promised, here are some thoughts on childcare in the Bible. The post has gotten a bit out of hand – it’s trying to survey bits of the Bible explicitly touching on parenting. However, having done this survey it’s pretty clear to me that most of the significant things the Bible says about parenting are not explicitly about parenting – they’re about godliness.

But since I’ve done this survey – here it is.

The Bible starts with the important command to humans to ‘Fill the earth and subdue it’ (Gen 1:28), suggesting that parenting is an important part of what we are created to do. In addition the curse in Genesis 3 points to the particularly central role that childbirth plays for women.

As we move on through the pentateuch we don’t see a lot about the actual day-to-day childcare arrangements of children. Although one interesting situation is Moses and his mother, where it is clearly seen as a great blessing that his mother can keep nursing him, even though he is adopted by the Princess of Egypt. (Exodus 2:1-10)

It is interesting that there are no direct laws about childcare, and in fact a lot less laws about parenting in general than there are about the importance of children respecting their parents. The one, absolutely vital, command for parents is to instruct their children in the laws and the mighty rescue that God accomplished for them (Deut 6:7,20-25). The other responsibility parents have to their children in the law is to not allow them to intermarry with the surrounding people.

Moving on from the pentateuch, we come to the interesting case of Samuel, who is sent off to the temple as soon as he is weaned (wonder what age that was). This is certainly seen as a positive in the story, and interestingly the sadness in the story is not for Samuel living away from home, but for his mother who has lost her son. The blessing from ELi is that she would have other children to replace the one given to the Lord. In this particular situation Eli of course is seen as a weak parent because of the poor behaviour of his sons. Although no mention of the particular childcare arrangements are made.

Moving on to 2 Kings there is the situation of the Shunamite’s son who when he has ‘grown’ goes out to be with his father and the reapers and then gets sick (sun stroke??) and dies. He can’t have been that old, however because he dies sitting on his mothers lap. Don’t think it’s making any point about childcare but it certainly reminds us that culturally things are very different. Most kids aren’t going to wander out and reap with their dads these days! There tends to be this massive divide between home and community.

In the book of Esther, Esther is brought up by Mordecai her cousin, but there is an explanation to the effect that this is becaue her parents have died, assuming that in normal situations they would bring her up.

The book of Proverbs perhaps has the most to say about parenting in the Bible, discipline and wise teaching are counselled as being essential to wise and godly children (6:20 etc). Proverbs also has the interesting picture of the proverbs 31 super woman who seems to be able to care for her household and have a range of business interests all at the same time.

Turning to the New Testament, there is again not a lot of direct teaching about parenting. Jesus’ parent clearly have a significant input in his life. But the exact nature of that input is not spelt out.

Jesus himself commends respect for parents, but also indicates that to leave parents or children for his sake is an appropriate thing to do. He may well be talking about adult children in this verse.

Jesus also assumes that parents love and care for their children in his parables – eg the prodigal son (Luke 15) and the equating of God with a father who wants to give good gifts to his son (Luke 11:11-13).

Moving on in the New Testament, the key direct instruction about parenting is in Ephesians 6:4. In many ways this verse picks up the key idea of proverbs – that fathers should not exasperate their children but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

In the pastorals there is rather difficult verse from 1 Timothy 2 about women being saved through childbirth. This may indicate the special place that child rearing has in women working out their salvation – although to be fair I think there is legitimate dispute over the exact meaning of the verse.

The other important verse in the pastorals is Titus 2:3-5 where the older women are to teach the younger women to love their husbands and children and to be busy at home. This verse certainly suggests that women had a key role in the home, but doesn’t directly address the childcare question.

To conclude this survey, it seems to me that the overwhelming concern of the Bible is that Parents raise their children in the training and instruction of the Lord. This comes through again and again in the law, the wisdom and the New Testament. And I would think this would be the first and most vital question to ask when thinking about childcare arrangements. How will they effect our task in bringing children up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

It is assumed in the Bible that parents will love their children, and that mothers have a special role around childbirth and the home. However I don’t think from what is said about parenting it can be supported that mothers must be at home all the time with their children, or that it is wrong to have some parts of childcare done by others. The Bible genuinely leaves this as an area of freedom.

There are of course other issues that we will need to be aware of when making decisions about full-time mothering and childcare. These include materialism, careerism, the value of children and opportunites for ministry and service in the community and what is loving for our particular children. But I think that is definitely another post.

Love to hear if I’ve missed any important passages.

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